Rocking the Boat — Women’s Equality Day
“There would be nothing like this happen if you would stay at home.”
Eighty-four years ago, on August 26, 2004, U.S.
Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the Nineteenth Amendment to the
Constitution, giving women the right to vote. Today both the
Republicans and the Democrats are eagerly chasing after women’s votes.
But it wasn’t always so, as this anonymous plea, which has been making the
rounds of the internet, makes clear:
A short history lesson on the privilege of voting
The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the
end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding
clubs and with their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33
women wrongly convicted of "obstructing sidewalk traffic."
They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head,
and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for
air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against
an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu,
thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional
affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking,
slamming, pinching, twisting, and kicking the women.
Thus unfolded the "Night of Terror" on November 15, 1917 (a mere 87 years
ago), when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his
guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they
dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote.
For weeks, the women's only water came from an open
pail. Their food — all of it colorless slop — was infested with worms.
When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they
tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat, and poured liquid into
her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word
was smuggled out to the press.
So, refresh my memory. Some women won't vote this
year because — why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to
work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining?
Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie "Iron
Jawed Angels." It is a graphic depiction of the battle these women
waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my
say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.
All these years later, voter registration is still my passion. But
the actual act of voting had become less personal for me, more rote.
Frankly, voting often felt more like an obligation than
a privilege. Sometimes it was inconvenient.
My friend Wendy, who is my age and studied women's history, saw the HBO
movie, too. When she stopped by my desk to talk about it, she looked
angry. She was — with herself.
"One thought kept coming back to me as I watched that movie," she
said. "What would those women think of the way I use — or don't use —
my right to vote? All of us take it for granted now, not just
younger women, but those of us who did seek to learn. "The right to vote"
she said, had become valuable to her all over again.
HBO will run the movie periodically before releasing it on
I wish all history, social studies, and government teachers would include
the movie in their curriculum. We are not voting in the numbers that we
should be, and I think a little shock therapy is in order.
It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade
a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could
be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch
the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That
didn't make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: "Courage in women is
often mistaken for insanity."
Please pass this on to all the women you know. We
need to get out and vote and use this right that was fought so hard for by
these very courageous women.
The first battle was won in the West, many years
earlier, when the Territorial Legislature of Wyoming resolved in 1869
"That every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this
Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast
her vote." With statehood in 1890, Wyoming brought women suffrage into the
United States, after officials in Cheyenne made it clear that they would
refuse to join the Union without it.
One by one, other Western States followed:
Colorado in 1893, Utah and Idaho in 1896, Washington in 1910. In 1911 the
State of California voted on the question. Here, as Mae Silver writes for
Shaping San Francisco, the opposition used not physical but economic
weapons. And that opposition centered on San Francisco and Alameda
Women claim the vote in California
By Mae Silver
American women gained their right to vote in 1920.
But in California, women had already won the right to vote in 1911, nearly
a decade earlier.
The 1896 and 1911 suffrage campaigns demonstrated the mature political
savvy women had acquired. Both campaigns drew help from suffragists all
over America, but the assistance to the 1911 effort was formidable. Women
remembered who defeated them in 1896.
Out of all the California counties, two killed the suffrage attempt in
1896 — San Francisco and Alameda. The Liquor Dealers League, really the
producers, proprietors, and patrons of drink, defeated suffrage. Between
1896 and 1906, the movement languished in California as across America.
But, after the earthquake in 1906, a suffrage convention of considerable
size convened in San Francisco. The fight was on. The strategy would aim
hard at the state's small towns and Southern California. Aided by the
automobile and telephone, north and south suffragists merged to form an
impressive campaign machine. The work was intense and highly individual.
Church to church, school to school, club to club, door to door, person to
person; all received handbills and newspaper articles about the suffrage
movement. Little towns where nobody ever saw a suffragist learned about
women's rights and the importance of the right to vote. The College Equal
Suffrage League staged unique publicity events, often using their "Blue
Liner," a special touring car.
The night before the election, the famed Madame
Nordica, in town for ground-breaking for the Panama-Pacific Exposition,
unexpectedly appeared in Union Square. She entreated all to give women
liberty — the vote. Nordica closed by singing "The Star Spangled Banner"
to the cheers of the assembled crowd.
The next day, October 10, 1911, suffragist precinct workers geared for
fraud and mayhem at the ballot boxes in San Francisco and Alameda
counties. An impressive corps of ballot box watchers, 1,066 men and women,
scrutinized every voting poll in San Francisco. Watchers tallied at least
3,000 fraudulent ballots. The day after the election, city newspapers
declared the California women's franchise vote dead. As anticipated, San
Francisco County voted 35,471 No, 21,912 Yes. Alameda voted 7,818 No,
6,075 Yes. But suffrage workers smiled when the other votes started to
roll in. Slowly they came, as they had been sought. The small towns and
valleys delivered the victorious votes that returned a majority of 3,587.
In 1911, California women joined the franchised women of Wyoming,
Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Washington. In 1912, Oregon, Kansas, and
Arizona women won their vote. West Coast women claimed their franchise.
The potential power of that vote did not go unnoticed.
In those nine Western states resided six and one-half million women
voters. That translated into 45 electoral votes. In 1916, Alice Paul,
chair of the Washington, D.C. Committee of the National American Woman
Suffrage Association, created the National Women's Party (NWP), a
political party with only one agenda — the passage of the Susan B. Anthony
19th Amendment. NWP boasted 50,000 members and raised three-quarters of a
million dollars. Masterly and persistently, Paul executed her resolve,
sending NWP members to be the first women in history to picket the White
House. Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National Association, engineered
an incredibly complex and effective machine throughout the United States.
Paul used "the young are at the gates" confrontational methods while Catt
brokered adroitly in rooms dominated by either tea or cigars. Because of
both drives, President Woodrow Wilson finally surrendered his support on
behalf of the women's suffrage cause.
After Congress passed the proposal on June 4, 1919, each state had to
ratify the amendment. Some state legislatures offered continued
resistance. This was not the case in California. On November 1, 1919,
Governor William D. Stephens called a special session of the legislature
to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Before the vote more than 100 members
of the state suffrage association hosted a luncheon honoring the entire
legislature, the governor, and other executives. California ratified the
Susan B. Anthony Amendment with little contention.
The hour of the woman had arrived.
* Suffrage Parade, Senate Hearing,
March 6-17, 1913, p. 70 (JK1888 1913b GenColl; MicRR; RBSC NAWSA; LAW).
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